Hundreds of backpacks left behind by migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border on display in Jason De León's "State of Exception" exhibit. Mark Lennihan/AP

MacArthur Fellow Jason De León is documenting the stories of anonymous Mexican border migrants by gathering the artifacts they leave behind.

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced its list of 2017 fellows—24 people from all walks of life who will receive $625,000 “genius” grants, as they’re often called. CityLab is running a series of short conversations with several of the winners. This interview was originally published in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

Every year since 2009, Jason De León, an anthropologist and professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has traveled to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. There, he collects artifacts abandoned by migrants on their way to the United States—backpacks, handbags, Virgin Mary statues, shoes, bottles, Bibles, water jugs, t-shirts. These castoffs were witnesses to the journey that takes the lives of hundreds of immigrants every year, who die after traveling for up to ten days, without water, food, and shelter.

De León has now collected more than 9,000 such objects as part of his Undocumented Migration Project, which helped the anthropologist win one of the MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious fellowships. Some are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.; another exhibition, State of Exception, was mounted at the New School in New York City last spring. It featured more than 900 backpacks, bottles of water, and artifacts collected by De León and his team in Sonora, Arizona. The MacArthur grant, he says, will allow him to continue this research and possibly create an enclosure in Arivaca, near the border in Arizona, where he will work and collect the objects. “Every backpack represents a person,” De León says. “A story. A complicated story. A long story. And we have to think about them first. The artifacts are the way to reach people, not the end in itself.”

(Courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation)

CityLab Latino talked to De León soon after his MacArthur grant was announced.

What inspired you to create the Undocumented Migration Project? Why this focus on death and the value of objects?

Before starting the project in 2009, I was working in Mexico as an archaeologist. During that time I met many people, many of them migrants. After so many years of talking to them, trying to understand their experiences, I decided to take another direction and focus on the social process of migration. Knowing them affected me a lot. This is how I started this, when I first went to the desert with the idea of ​​using archeology methods to understand that process and connect it with other methods of anthropology such as ethnography and forensic science. The subject of death is very strong in this context. It is one thing you can not avoid. Death is everywhere in that process.

What do the artifacts mean to you?

The artifacts are a very important way to understand what the life of the migrants is like, how they suffer in the desert. These objects are part of the history of the United States. They are the material evidence that this process is going on, and there are many people suffering. Archeology is a method for me to document that process.

Can you give me some examples of those artifacts or objects that speak of that common history between the United States and Mexico?

We have more than 9,000 pieces. There is plenty of variety: water bottles, shoes, clothes, children’s things, Bibles, letters, ID cards. There are some that affect you a lot, emotionally speaking, like baby bottles or children's shoes. For me, these things have more force when we are talking about the stories of a person. Americans have to understand that millions of people are going through that process today. In 2009 we found a t-shirt that had a giant Statue of Liberty on the back. Those are to me the powerful marks of the American dream.

What do you think have been the biggest successes of the project?

One of the greatest achievements was that the Smithsonian Archives Institute and the American History Museum wanted to exhibit the artifacts. That is a recognition that what we do is very important, that these artifacts are a piece of our history, that here we are not talking about numbers, about statistics, but we are talking about people, about families, about immigrants who have stories and names. And in those moments is when we have to start having those kinds of conversations with the public outside the academy.

And the biggest challenges?

One of the biggest challenges is that people, in general, are interested only in objects. But I do not want to talk about the objects of the migrants alone; I want to talk about people. It’s important to show the public that archeology is a vehicle for starting another conversation about migration. For example, at the New York exhibit, where there were nearly 900 backpacks of immigrants, people said that it affected them a lot, that they felt sad. But most of the time they talked only about the backpacks and not about those people.

Where would you like to see the project in the future?

We are working in the desert using forensic science to find remains of migrants who have died in Arizona and to identify them. The resources of this scholarship will help to put together another exhibition in September 2018 on the experiences of migrants not only in Sonora, but also in Central America and Mexico. There are always places where we can do more and with this scholarship we will do a lot of things. I’m very, very excited about that.

Why is it relevant for Latinos like you to win these kinds of prizes?

At this time, the person in the White House does not want to understand the reality of migration. Therefore, what we wanted to do is show the public what’s actually happening, the reality of the border. We are trying to use a lot of methods to talk to a large and broad audience and I think the fact that I am Latino helps me a lot. Because I have a migrant family, because many of them crossed, because I have an undocumented family, I have a very strong connection with the subject, besides my studies. I think that connection personally influences quite a bit the type of work we are doing. One part is science. The other is study. And the other, then, the emotions. The idea is to try to put into practice a project that has all three things.

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